Hotel fills a longtime void in West Chester

Ellen and Brian McFadden stand in front of the Hotel Warner, in a former movie theater.
Ellen and Brian McFadden stand in front of the Hotel Warner, in a former movie theater.
Posted: August 18, 2012

Over the last decade, the ambitious rebirth of West Chester's business district has brought everything to the once-rundown county seat from a Cajun restaurant to vintage clothing boutiques and a sex shop geared for women. The only thing missing was a place to stay the night.

Until today.

The long-awaited opening of the 80-room Hotel Warner on High Street is a milestone for West Chester's future that also manages to preserve a beloved art deco sliver of the borough's past: The striking two-story lobby and grand staircase that once marked the entrance to its last movie house, the Warner Theater.

"There was a need here," said Brian McFadden, the 55-year-old area resident who developed and owns the new hotel along with his wife Ellen, 54. "The town grew and re-gentrified with bars, shops. It's great to come for a few days, but there's no place to stay."

McFadden said the Hotel Warner is the borough's first lodging since the old Mansion Hotel, which stood at Market and Church Streets and was torn down in 1974. Since then, the closest places to stay have been several chain motels outside the borough, along Route 202.

Tonight's grand opening also marks a homecoming, of sorts, for the McFaddens - who both graduated from Delaware County's Cardinal O'Hara High School in 1975 but didn't connect until they were students together at Villanova University. Ellen studied chemical engineering, while Brian trained to be an accountant and worked in West Chester as a CPA for 20 years. But their long detour into the hospitality business began at the Jersey Shore, where his parents owned a house in Ocean City.

He was only 18 and his brother 20 when they bought a rental duplex in Ocean City. Over the years, McFadden bought more properties, until 15 years ago he and his wife purchased and restored Ocean City's Georgian Hotel.

"Not sure why, we just did," Brian McFadden said. "It's an economy of scale. You can run two apartments or a 40-room motel. It's almost easier to run a 40-room motel. I guess it's a matter of critical mass."

Their efforts saved the old seaside hotel from the wrecking ball for a time, although it was demolished after the McFaddens sold it.

"The problem with older hotels is, people want the romance and lure of the past but they don't want to put up with the inconvenience, such as small rooms," Brian McFadden said. "Everybody wants a king-size bed, but they didn't have king-size beds 100 years ago."

The Hotel Warner, with its five-story main building behind the restored lobby, is the couple's fifth hotel. Currently, they own the Ocean Breeze and Bluewater Inn in Ocean City and the small Dilworthtown Motel outside West Chester, as well as five office buildings and a storage facility in the borough.

Earlier this week, as they prepared for the West Chester opening amid the record-hot summer, the easygoing couple arrived in the Shore attire that they call their work clothes: A short, flowered skirt and tank top for Ellen, and cargo shorts, polo shirt, and sneakers for Brian. The casual attire came in handy recently as they helped coworkers form a human chain to lug heavy items up stairs in the brutal humidity.

This week, the space was still bustling with workers power-washing the sidewalk and learning how to operate the waffle maker in the second-floor breakfast space, atop the old movie-theater staircase.

The hotel - which is a franchise of the Centerstone chain and will be operated as one of its Inns of Distinction - combines the historic vibe of the old movie house with newer amenities such as an indoor pool, a fitness center, and green-energy features such as solar panels and geothermal heating.

With West Chester and its surrounding area home to pharmaceutical companies as well as West Chester University, a medical center, and the county government, the McFaddens are optimistic about the hotel's prospects. Already some rooms - which run for $129 to $159, including breakfast - have been booked in advance.

The grand opening should mean more economic activity not just for the borough but for the McFadden family. Not only does Ellen keep all of the books for the operation, but two of the couple's four children - who range in age from 27 to 20 - now work for them. Their 26-year-old son is employed at the West Chester site, while a 20-year-old daughter manages one of the Ocean City motels. She is learning to handle difficult customers and to negotiate for more money with the boss: She recently presented her parents with a list of reasons she deserves a raise.

"It looked like a list for the Tooth Fairy," her father said with a laugh.


Contact Kathy Boccella at 610-313-8123, kboccella@phillynews.com, or @kmboccella on Twitter.

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